Josh Groban poses in Toronto, on Monday, Jan. 10, 2011.
Having previously uncovered the dangers of concert-sign proliferation and "Hallelujah" creep, I would like to draw your attention if I could to today's Worst Thing About Music Today. In my other professional capacity, I had the distinct professional capacity to attend last night's Josh Groban concert in Boston. Midway through, during a segment when Groban was answering audience text messages, came the request: "I would like you to sing 'The Prayer' with my sister."
The singer obliged, of course, and as it happened, audience member's sister (and fellow audience member) Bridget Conway was, in a word, great. She turned out to have an unexpectedly handsome alto, and the song ended in a magical moment when she and Groban – who (you will recall) had no knowledge of Conway's existence three minutes earlier – sang the final line in perfect harmony, which (you will also recall) they couldn't have possibly worked out ahead of time.
For Conway, it was undoubtedly a tremendous thrill. And yet, as nice a moment as it was, one thought kept running through my mind: "It's happening again."
We seem to be in the full flowering of a moment that began in Toronto on May 7, when Rayna Ford requested "Duncan" from Paul Simon and was invited up onstage to play it herself instead. Since Simon was coming to Boston a few weeks later, I began joking that I'd better start practicing "The Obvious Child."
Others apparently thought the same thing, only they weren't joking. Earlier this month in Nashville, concertgoer Adam Bevell was brought onstage to play "All I Want Is You" with U2 (and given a guitar) when he held up a sign reading "BLIND GUITAR PLAYER. Bring me up."
Adam Bevell playing "One" with U2. This could be you, until bands get sick of this sort of thing.
And then there's the recent rash of Marines inviting Mila Kunis, Justin Timberlake and Betty White to formal functions. When it first appeared that Kunis was going to decline, the Internet turned on her head-spinningly quickly, and the cynical among us might figure that her turnaround of "Oh, it appears that I can accompany you to the Marine Corps Ball!" was less a schedule-untangling than a concerted effort to save face in light of a potential PR nightmare.
But think about it: Since when is a celebrity obligated to accept when a complete stranger asks him or her out? Heck, since when is a person obligated to accept when a complete stranger asks him or her out? When someone publicly lobbies for a date, or to become part of a concert, it should be simple to turn them down politely. Unfortunately, when it's going to go viral either way, celebrities are sort of stuck.
Granted, there are a number of ways in which Groban invited exactly this situation. Substantial portions of his show were devoted to crowd interaction, to the point where the setlist specifically denoted "Crowd Interaction". The questions he read during the text-message bit were pre-selected ahead of time (without, if he is to be believed, Groban knowing what they would be). And a search of "josh groban the prayer fan" on YouTube yields a bunch of audience duets. (Last night's is nowhere to be found yet, emphasis on "yet.")
This woman has taken over a Swell Season show, and everyone is happy about it.
Look, I'm not made of stone. I've watched the Swell Season's Houston performance with overwhelmed audience member Moji, a winner of the coveted Linda Holmes Seal Of Happy-Making Approval, a bunch of times. And it'd be disingenuous if I railed against this without mentioning the time I tried (and failed) to do this very thing myself with Alex Chilton. It's actually modestly embarrassing and my regret will likely sting for the rest of my life, which is why I encourage you to read about it here.
What concerns me is the increasing sense that we as audiences are entitled to join our favorite celebrities and emboldened to demand that it happens. There's going to be a breaking point eventually when a someone is going to say "Enough is enough." And woe betide the performer who takes that stand.